All posts by girljustgo@gmail.com

Review: Ibis Budget Amsterdam Airport – Cute but icky.

I’m cheap a fan of low prices. If I can save a substantial amount of money and still get to travel, I will put up with a lot. But I *do* insist on good value, even if a place cost relatively little.

Recently I stayed at the Ibis Budget Amsterdam Airport hotel. And, well. It was cheap for the Amsterdam area.

It was also not a good value, because while the good points were fine some of the bad were deal breakers.

THE GOOD:

This hotel is near to Schiphol airport and has a free shuttle which is fantastic if you are exhausted after a long flight like I was.  I checked in quickly, found my room, and immediately slept like the dead for five hours.  Then I got up and went into town for dinner because I was starving. If you want to go into Amsterdam, you need to catch a bus which isn’t that big of a deal. The  bus runs regularly, the stop is right across a main road with crosswalk from the airport,  and the whole setup is fairly easy to figure out. (HINT: the bus you want is NOT a GVB bus, so the free travel that comes with the iAmsterdam card does not work on it and you will end up paying 5 euro *each way* to ride into town. Do not be me. Get a chip card from one of the yellow kiosks.)

Free breakfast.  And it is decent breakfast, too.  Different kinds of bread and rolls, peanut butter, jams and jellies, cold cuts, sliced tomato and cucumber, juice, coffee (different types, from a machine but good), boiled eggs, and some fruit.  I successfully avoided dairy by asking for help from one of the women working the kitchen.  She came out and spent maybe three minutes telling me that she doesn’t do dairy either and exactly what I could eat – and then she told me what to go get from local grocery stores if I wasn’t satisfied with my options.  Super impressed by this.

Also, if you aren’t lactose intolerant?  Make toast, top it with butter, and add some of the rocking little sprinkle topping things they have everywhere in the Netherlands.  I’d never seen this before, but there are small boxes (think matchbox sized or thereabouts) of different flavor sprinkles.  I brought some home for DS, and the teen boy verdict: very tasty.

Great employees.  In addition to the one who helped me with breakfast, I had positive experiences with *all* employees I spoke with.  Nobody was snarky, unhelpful, or unpleasant in any way.  It was almost spooky at first but I got used to it.

Attractive, if no -frills.  The picture I’ve used here is from the Ibis website, but it accurately depicts the lobby area.  The lobby is bright, cheery, and well-lit.  Hallways are colorful.  My room had a sort of “downmarket Ikea” look to it, modern and sleek.  It does scream “budget hotel,” but in a quirky way that has some charm.

THE BAD:

Oh man, the bad. I almost hate writing this.  I wanted to give the place a good review overall, I really did.  Everyone was so nice I feel like I’m gearing up to kick a puppy.

Folks, if you can avoid it?  Don’t stay here.

Climate control in the room did not work, and when I told the desk about it they seemed puzzled.  It is not AC per se but it is climate control (somehow). Well, it did nothing.  At all.  In July.  And there is no fan in the room.

The shower stall smelled like the love child of ball sweat and spoiled milk.  I can’t even begin to explain this.  The shower in my room was a tiny room-to-itself that opened right into the tiny bedroom.  Sink was in the bedroom and toilet in a separate toilet room.  I don’t know if it is maybe because sealing the shower off like that doesn’t let air circulate, or if maybe mold or something was growing, but damn, son. That was a bad smell.  I would have to steel myself every morning to get in and get clean, and it doesn’t make you feel very clean to get into a shower that smells worse than you do dirty.

The toilet sucked. If you pee you are fine.  If you have a bm and it is anything other than a delicate lady-flower offering of tiny compact and easily flushable waste?  Good luck with that.  You are going to be looking at the evidence for a full day.  Not dire, but still icky.

I did notice that toilets don’t seem to flush as vigorously in the Netherlands as they do in the US, so this may be a regulatory thing?  But most places provide a little toilet brush in the stall (even in public spaces).  Here, nothing.  Your choices are: ignore the mess, complain to the front desk and ask for someone to clean it (and die of embarrassment, and besides who does that sort of thing?), or wad up toilet paper and do your best to try to clean it yourself after flushing again to bring the water level as low as possible.  Not fun, any option you pick.

Uncomfortable bed.  It was better than sleeping on the floor, and I’ve had worse, but this was not a bed I would call comfortable.  Exhaustion let me sleep anyhow, but I woke up a bit sore.  If you have any sort of condition made worse by lack of sleep or by dodgy mattresses, steer clear.

Bugs.  Without this one factor I would probably still give a tepid but positive review.  But there were bugs in the room.  I had bites on me and I’m not sure what bit me (looked for bedbugs but did not see any).  I know for sure that there were little lacewing looking things as I spotted two of them chilling on the wall of the room.  And I stomped on a silverfish that was sauntering across the floor like it paid rent and what are YOU looking at? Just: no.  I draw the line at silverfish.

TL/DR:  If someone else is paying and Ibis Budget is your only option to see Amsterdam, sure.  Otherwise, keep looking.

 

Coping with the “Leaving-Soon Crazies”

I love traveling, exploring new places, finding out new things. But right before I go, the last day or so, I have every doubt under the sun. What if a doberman attacks my little dog on a walk while I’m away and he’s scared and sad I’m not there? What if my husband has a health crisis, and I’m not there? What if facilities decides that the only time they can move my office to our new location is this coming week while I’m gone, and since I wasn’t there they wash their hands of the whole mess and I have to play mover as best I can? What if I’m robbed and tossed in a river while I’m away and my son has to go live with his dad and they never find my body?

I’m a real joy the day before I travel, I tell you.

I call these type of thoughts and feelings the “leaving-soon crazies.” They suck. I’ve learned to treat them like an unpleasant but short-lived virus; I know what it is, I know it will pass, and I just have to press through. I also have a few tactics to make the departure less fraught for me.

* Over-prepare like you would not believe. How many times have I packed for this trip? Three. And that doesn’t count adding and subtracting one or two things here or there. I’m talking ‘lay out all of the clothes and things, fold them cleverly, and stow tightly in a bag’ packing, from scratch, each time and with major wardrobe changes. And in three different bags, no less. Every time I do a repack I realize some of what I thought I needed I really don’t so I pare down. I also remembered something important I *do* need during my last packing yesterday, and was able to duck out this morning and buy a replacement. Drives my husband nuts – he tosses things in a backpack the night before he leaves for a week-long trip and is satisfied. But it is my process and I feel so much better being my version of prepared.

* Tie up loose ends that would otherwise bother me. All dishes are done, nothing is in the sink. The dog is freshly bathed. My towels are in the laundry. I have a new box of coffee pods so that I know when I get home I have my favorite coffee waiting.

* Address what didn’t work well on previous trips. This time, my big fix focus is: What is going to happen to my mail? I’m the only one traveling so a mail stop won’t work – it stops mail for everyone at an address. No bueno if others at home want to get their bills and correspondence. The last time I went on a trip a small package got lost because my son forgot he brought it in and stashed it somewhere safe in my office. I had contacted the shipper to let them know it had not arrived and had gotten an apology and a replacement, and then I found the package. Horrifying, people! (Of course I contacted the seller and paid for the new shipment as well, and apologized profusely.) This time around I’ve set up a basket with a lid for all of my mail and any packages. Nothing should fall out, be stashed somewhere for me to hunt for like an Easter egg, or otherwise go astray.

* Leave surprises. Normally I leave cards for people when I travel – DH gets a love letter, DS gets a nice note, and DD gets something cute and funny mailed to her (she doesn’t live at home). I didn’t do that this time because I figure it will be more fun to get little cards there and mail them back so they get fun mail. I also got the dog a new box of his favorite tiny treats, and a new chew Nylabone toy.

Wish I had remembered to fill the Xanax prescription, though.

IAMAT. It’s free. You should join.

What happens if you are far from home, really sick, and don’t speak the language where you are? And nobody seems to speak yours either, at least not the people who can help you? Not good. Could you figure it out, or just push through? Sure. But that sucks, and isn’t necessary.

I happened across IAMAT when googling ways to magically make myself un-sick in time to leave for the Netherlands. I’d pulled references and information from them before but hadn’t joined. Now, with my new-found illness obsession, I checked a little more closely.

The TL/DR version:
1. It is free to join. If you join you can immediately download a membership card.
2. You can then log in and search providers worldwide who speak English and work with IAMAT.
3. There are set fees for non-hospital visits if you are booking with your IAMAT card. For a regular daytime office visit, it runs $100USD. That isn’t that bad for getting right in to be seen, and it is a negotiated cost with IAMAT so unless you have to go to a hospital there shouldn’t be additional fees for the visit. (Medication may be extra.)

I get nothing for referring you – IAMAT is not a sponsor. This is a straight up recommendation because why not?! It is free to join, and I’ve already gotten the address of medical offices in both Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the relevant phone numbers, and the names (and in two cases, emails) of doctors who have the agreement with IAMAT. At least now I feel better that if this gets horrible halfway through my trip, I’m not wandering aimlessly and hoping for the best.

It’s free. It’s peace of mind. You probably won’t need it, but what if you do? You should join.

Five days before I leave, and I’m getting sick. Of course.

Aw man.  I”m trying not to freak out about this, but I leave for ten days in the Netherlands this coming Wednesday (five days from now), and I’m showing all of the symptoms of a horrible cold starting up.  I am getting sick before a major trip overseas. Hear that high pitched thin whine if you turn off your tv or radio? That’s me. You can just barely hear me screaming in frustration and pique from wherever you are in the world if you listen closely. Dammit dammit dammit dammit!

I’ve been sick overseas before and it is no fun.  I got a flu so bad in Tampere, Finland, that I spent a lot of the trip in my hotel room praying for death (that was a work trip too, and not the most successful).  As miserable as it is just being sick away from home?  It is far worse wandering around trying to find medicine to take, when none of the labels are in English and you don’t speak the language.

At least this time English is the second language pretty much throughout the Netherlands, so if I’m really in extremis I can probably get help.  But – I don’t want to be sick at all!  Maybe I can fend it off somehow?

I think I get sick from overexcitement.  I used to get sick every year right before Christmas when I was little, I would get so worked up.  And there is research that suggests that the stress of last-minute prep and planning before a trip tends to get us sick, so it isn’t just me. (Not that it makes me feel much better.)

There are ways to help prevent common travel-related illnesses away from home, but that doesn’t help me if I’m already pestilent before I leave. I’ll pack an awesome, comprehensive medical kit to help with the various issues that may come up of course. But I have five whole glorious days before I leave to kick my immune system into acting like an efficient killing machine. I’m going to try anything and everything that doesn’t seem like it would be stressful (counterproductive, if stress is what caused the problem in the first place), overly expensive, or dangerous.

I’m going to start by throwing my diet out of the window and chugging Emergen-C like a fiend. I will also do some gentle exercise, drink lemon water, and watch that I get enough sleep, but I draw the line at kombucha tea. It smells like feet, and I just can’t get past that. (Sorry, kombucha lovers! But, ick!)

If I’m not on the mend by Monday I’m going to get an appointment with my GP and see if he will write an RX for antibiotics in case this becomes bronchitis while I’m gone.

Off to google “stopping a cold with the power of your mind,” “guided meditation for health,” and “I absolutely refuse to get sick dammit.” I’ll let you know how it turns out.

DAMMIT.

Extra fees and the business traveler: who pays?

My recent purchase of baggage allowance for a no-frills budget flight has me wondering about business travel and who pays for what where extra fees are concerned.  My job will pay for air fare and necessary accommodations for work trips.  BUT – they won’t pay extra fees for things like first-class seats (I wish!), in-flight entertainment, and so on.

With WOW air, you can’t get a seat assignment in advance without paying for seat choice.  I do NOT want to be in the middle of a three- or even four-person row on an overnight flight overseas if I can help it.  If this were Delta I could have chosen a seat when booking – no extra fee unless I wanted a business or first-class seat.  If it were Southwest I could have gotten some seat choice priority at least by booking early.  WOW makes you pay a fee even if you want one of the meh seats in coach.  Want to have any choice at all?  Fee.

Will my work reimburse that choice, excluding the upcharge for more leg room for segments where there were literally NO options that didn’t have an upcharge?  Likely no.  I’m not sure about their ‘optional baggage’ fees reimbursement either; theoretically I don’t ‘have’ to bring a suitcase, or even more than ten pounds’ worth of carryon.

Seat choice, carryon weight, checked bags.  When such things are included in the air fare, work will pay for them for business travel.  When they aren’t, who pays for the fees?  I’m betting it’s all over the map and depends on the workplace.  I’d love to hear that there are standard guidelines somewhere I could link to in an email to our HR.  Anybody?  How does your workplace manage these fees?  Precedence/guidelines anywhere?  I mean, I could offset the cost of the fees by allowing advertisers to lease space on my bags – weirdly brilliant, but I’d rather not. (Though if I got the stormtrooper skin or the minion skin, I might be willing – super cute.) Most of the other tips I’ve seen are along the lines of choose your flight carefully and read the policy, and consider shipping the bags or taking the train. Way less useful when you are fighting to keep a trip under budget so it can happen at all.

You win, Wow Air. I caved and purchased baggage.

I fly from DC to the Netherlands next month via Wow Air.  Wow is a bargain no-frills airline where you can get fairly cheap air tickets, but then have to pay extra fees for absolutely everything else.  And I mean everything.    I wouldn’t be surprised if you have to buy a ticket to use the toilet in flight.  A base ticket includes *one* carryon item (not one carryon bag + personal item, just ONE carryon period), of up to 11 pounds/5kg.  That’s it.

I’m traveling for work and have a tight budget, so I grabbed the cheapest ticket and figured I would make the best of it.  I bought a ScottEVest QUEST vest with 42 pockets so that I could shlep whatever wouldn’t fit in the bag on my person.  I made list after list after list of different combinations of clothing that would take me through the somewhat unpredictable Dutch summer (rain?  sure! hot? probably! But maybe also sixty degrees or thereabouts! whee!), *and* let me have options for both touring the city and sitting in work meetings/trainings for hours on end.  Plus, hopefully I’ll have time to ride a bike if I’m lucky.  Oh! And my iAmsterdam card comes with a free canal tour so I’ll also be on a boat part of one day.

HAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAAAHAHAHAAAAAA!

One dry run and I realized that my awesome carryon isn’t actually a bag of holding.  Not  the best plan I’ve ever had.  I love my QUEST vest and will likely wear it regardless, but I’m not sure I want to try to lug around 20# of gear on my person across four international flights and two layovers.   (Although if I decide to, I totally can – you should SEE what fits in this thing!)  I also decided the sacrifices I would have to make to pull it off suck.  I don’t want to only bring one small Midori A5 grid notebook to take me through four days of sightseeing and six days of training and note taking.  I’m a journaling/planning/scrapping/note taking beast, and I should have known at the outset that was never going to work.

But the final straw?  Shoes. Did I really want to walk all over Amsterdam, Bruges, Den Haag, and Rotterdam in one single pair of shoes and hope for the best?

Yeah.  No way.

So, congratulations Wow Air!  You win.  I went back to my reservation information, logged in with my confirmation number, and purchased both additional weight for my carryon AND a checked bag. *And, since once I start spending money I’m like a monkey on a Mai Tai bender, I went ahead and reserved my seats too and picked nice ones that were either aisle or window.  Two are even “extra EXTRA legroom.”

Tickets aren’t so cheap now.  Meep.

But.  But.  I will be more comfortable both in the air and during travel.  If I had to make do with just the one bag while sitting in the middle of two other people in a tiny squished row I could have, but I didn’t have to and decided it was worth it to me to make the switch.  My back will thank me for having a change of shoes and for being able to get up and move around.  I will be able to bring a laptop now instead of trying to do all work on an iPad.* * If I want to pack some of my safe core travel foods I can.  I don’t have to worry about cracking the mask to my CPAP from trying to cram everything into one single bag the size of a reusable grocery tote.  I can bring one set of workout clothing, so that I can keep up with that aspect of self-care.  Win, win, win.

DH thinks I’m trying to talk myself into being happy with the decision, but I think I made a wise choice given my resources and the situation.  I can do frugal with the best of them, but austerity for the sheer sake of austerity?  Not a fan.
*I don’t know that I will end up bringing the checked bag, I dread having lost baggage during overseas travel – it has happened to me before – but now if I deicide to it’s no big deal.  

**I may still decide to just bring the iPad. I’m torn. Work is easier on the laptop, but boy is security easier without.  What would you do?

 

 

 

 

5 Must-haves for long flights

Long flights don’t have to be misery if you bring along a few creature comforts.  Here is a short list of must-haves that will make the experience better if not great.  (For a ‘great’ flight experience?  Book first class, or fly Emirates where Economy class includes full gourmet meals, free alcohol, wifi/phone, and 2500+ TV channels).

Compression socks

I own one pair of compression socks, and I break them out for air travel: these.  I put them on before I get to the airport, walk through security shoeless in them, and wear them on the plane to my destination.  My feet are warm but not hot, and when I get where I’m going I don’t have scary swollen ankles that you can push a finger into and leave a lasting dent.  Plus, these dry in no time so I can wash them in the hotel sink and repeat the process for the flight home.

Large pashmina shawl

I found a gorgeous pashmina in a thrift store and bought it even though I’m not usually a scarf girl.  Turns out it is perfect for air travel – it folds down into a small space (I can zip it into a quart ziplock), it adds some nice color to my grey and black travel staples, and it is the perfect blanket for flights.  I use it over the top of me when I’m cold, over my lap and legs before takeoff if I have stuck my purse behind my feet (shhh!  don’t tell!), even once over my face when the person next to me would NOT turn off his reading light on a redeye flight.   I can’t for the life of me find the same scarf to link to online, but if I had to replace it for some reason I would likely buy one or more of these. Right size, reviews are great, inexpensive, and gorgeous colors and prints.

Lush “toothy tabs”  and a travel toothbrush

I don’t want to have to mess with a tube of toothpaste and a toothbrush on a plane.  Maybe I’m just too picky, but I don’t want to dig around in my carryon for my toiletries ziplock etc.  Instead I use Lush’s toothy tabs. Sometimes if I’m traveling really light these are all I will bring in terms of toothpaste for the whole trip. They are ingenious little tablets about the size of a “smarties” candy.  You pop one in your mouth before you want to brush.  Chew it up into a paste, add water to your brush, and go.  They don’t foam as much as regular toothpaste but they do get your teeth clean and freshen your breath.  Some of them taste funky though (wasabi and mint?  lemon and pepper?), so if you are close to a Lush storefront maybe ask to sample. My favorites are “Dirty” and “Aquatic.”

Sea bands

I get nauseous just riding in a backwards-facing seat on the Metro so these are a must-have for me, but even if you don’t tend to get queasy pack these just in case.   If there is enough turbulence it’ll make anyone nauseous, and on long flights that means extended awfulness. Sea Bands go around your wrist like ugly bracelets of stomach-soothing wonder. I have no idea how they work, something about pressure points, but once in position they help prevent queasiness. Bonus: they also work for many women for morning sickness, so they can potentially do double-duty.

Milk Makeup’s “Cooling Water” stick

Since I get miserably dry on both hands and face on long flights, and since I hate rummaging through bags to try to find something while I’m at my seat, having the Cooling Water stick on my person is handy and helpful. Plus it does feel cooling – always pleasant, but if I am feeling icky from the plane being stuffy it helps a bit.  So far I haven’t been pinged going through security with it – it is solid enough that I have been able to keep it on my person.  (If this changes I’ll let you know.)  People with very dry skin, or headed somewhere cold, might want to check out the Hydrating Oil stick instead.

Tips from a Local: Winfield, Kansas

TFAL is a feature where local residents give tips on what to do, see, eat, and check out while you visit their town.  Today’s tipster is Michele Boucher.  Michele Boucher is an English professor at the local college and part-time plant nursery worker.  She is also affiliated with Prairie Outfitters and Excursions, so check them out next time you are in the area.

If someone was in town just for a day, and wanted three really fun or interesting things to do, what would you suggest to them?

Picnic in Island Park,  Gallery 1001,  Wheat State Winery

What are your favorite non-chain-restaurant places for cheap lunch on the go?

Biederman’s Bistro

Which touristy things are worth doing in your city/town? Which ones are all hype in your opinion and are safe to skip?

Worth the price of the ticket: Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival, Kayaking/nature excursions with Prairie Outfitters and Excursions

Any special suggestions for visitors about clothing or footwear to be worn in your area?

Hot and humid in the summer

How is your city/town in terms of accessibility and acceptance?  Would you personally characterize it as easily navigable for a single parent with young children in tow?  For the mobility impaired?  Would you say that it is accepting of racial diversity and of LGBT people?

This is small-town Kansas, but because of the Bluegrass Festival (which has a national audience) and a local college, we are pretty accepting of visitors. We have a large contingent of former state hospital patients that live in group homes around town, so the town is friendly to the mobility impaired. We lack a diverse population, and you’ll find some people who have never left the county, but in general, all types of people are welcome.

Where is the best place to buy reasonably priced non-tacky souvenirs?  To buy kitchy tacky souvenirs?

Cowley County Historical Museum

What is your favorite day trip from city? (Out and return same day.)

Going to Wichita, to Farmer’s Market and Old Town shopping or taking the bridge tour. Also, kayaking in the local rivers.

What are your three favorite places in your city?

Campus of Southwestern College, Island Park, New library

Any faux pas to note?  Tips on how not to irk or otherwise offend the locals?

Ha ha ha–we’re Kansans. We would never let on if we were irked.

Please feel free to add anything you wish that I may not have thought to ask about but that you want to share.

The only time I would name Winfield as a tourist destination is in September, for the Bluegrass Festival. But you’re always welcome!

Long weekend in New Orleans

I’m all about taking every travel opportunity that presents itself. So, when my husband booked a work trip to New Orleans to attend a conference, I finagled a way to tag along.  I’d always wanted to see New Orleans but somehow had never gotten there.  Now I had no excuse!

I only had three days though – my teen son was spending the long weekend at a friend’s house.  I packed in as much as I humanly could, despite some challenges.  Here’s how I got to see a ton of stuff on the cheap and while mobility-impaired.

You know what doesn't work so great? Taking pictures out of the window of a moving tour bus.
You know what doesn’t work so great? Taking pictures out of the window of a moving tour bus.
Day 1: food, sightseeing, music, and a MAJOR FALL dammit

I got in about noon and was starving.  The hotel was just a few blocks from the French Quarter so it was a no-brainer to head that direction.  I could have eaten just about anywhere, since the tendency to “start with a roux” (e.g., butter and flour) meant that I’d have to juggle to avoid dairy wherever I went.   I ended up at Original Pierre Maspero’s for a muffaletta. It was pretty simple to ask for it to come without the cheese, got no complaints about the modification. It was wonderful – purists will scold that it isn’t the ‘original’ muffaletta, that I should have gone to the Central Grocery instead, but I was impressed.

Happy aside:  this is also where I discovered that you can order a beer and then take it to go when you leave the restaurant.  Oh New Orleans, you mad genius you!

Photo credit Simon Berube
Jackson Square park

The French Quarter in early spring is gorgeous.  It isn’t yet terribly hot and muggy, but it’s nice enough to wander all day.  This means it is also thronged with other tourists.  Which is fine, I don’t mind crowds when I’m moving well – you have to be at least people-tolerant to like urban travel I think – but I found it a bit overwhelming.  Jackson Square park was nuts.  Street performers doing their thing and busking for money! Artists displaying paintings all along the railings of the park! Thousands of sightseers everywhere drinking alcoholic drinks out of to-go cups the size of Big Gulps! And food absolutely everywhere.

It occurred to me that if I kept wandering around aimlessly I would likely not see much of anything, and I only had a few days. Plus, it had started to rain.  I’m tired and crabby, and I just want to sit down.  Normally I’m not sightseeing tour girl but I made an exception.   I chose to go with Cajun Encounters tours. Before I wax poetic – this isn’t a sponsored post, and I paid all tour fees myself. And I loved the tour I took – the City and Cemetery bus tour, which took us all over the city: Treme, one of the St. Louis cemeteries (though not the one with Marie Laveau’s tomb), the Garden District, the French Quarter, by the Superdome. Very strong tour with an experienced guide who gave information on each place but wasn’t cutesy or annoying about it. (Chipper, overly joke-y tour guides make me stabby.) The tour took hours, and included a good bit of time to wander around the cemetery and take photos. Fully disabled-accessible also. Our tour had several mobility-impaired persons and the tour pace was adjusted to fully include them without making an issue of it.

Above ground tomb in New Orleans cemetery
Above ground tomb in New Orleans cemetery

That evening we went to  Commander’s Palace for dinner, and hit Frenchmen Street for music and clubbing.  Bourbon Street gets all of the press and attention, but if you really want great music without the hype?  You want Frenchmen Street. We went to the Spotted Cat Music Club, wonderful music but a huge crowd and no real room to dance. We continued on to the Blue Nile, and I found my jam. Wonderful club! Plenty of space to dance, music was fantastic – the Washboard Chaz Blues Trio was officially my favorite New Orleans discovery and I came home with two of their CDs.   If I lived in New Orleans I could see making the Blue Nile a regular haunt.  Eventually we decided to wander back toward the hotel, but stop for beignets on the way.

That’s when circumstances combined to remind me that I have … issues … that must be accommodated when traveling. Cute shoes PLUS adorable little dress PLUS two beers PLUS cracked pavement PLUS dodging a tour bus full of drunken revelers ON TOP OF having spinal issues that can cause lack of feeling in my feet? Equals completely eating it in the middle of the street in New Orleans, apparently.

I went down so hard I was sure I’d broken my leg. I’ll spare you the bloody knee photos, but trust me: it was impressive. DH supported half of my weight as I limped up the street to the original French Market Cafe du Monde. Because goddammit: beignets.  I was hurt, not dead, and I was going to try them.

I originally promised myself I’d just order coffee, and take a bite from DH’s order.  But I was already in enough pain that I just said “fuck it” and ate two whole beignets instead of just a bite, lactose intolerance be damned. So worth it. If you’ve never had them, try them at least once if you can. Beignets are like donuts, but better. Less sweet, and less cake-like so lighter, but then positively buried under mounds of powdered sugar. Don’t inhale or exhale while taking a bite, or you’ll be coughing a white cloud and wearing half of your snack.

The rest of the night was a blur, I took painkillers and tummy meds and went to bed and slept like hell.

Beignets were still worth it.

Day 2: Lurching about New Orleans – voodoo, pedicabs, and a steamboat

When I woke up the next morning I couldn’t really walk. Which sucked, considering I had booked another tour – a WALKING tour of the French Quarter and cemeteries. Since my pace was now “sloth on quaaludes,” that wasn’t going to work. The nice people at Cajun Encounters waived their advance notice for cancellation once I explained my situation, and they gave me a 50% refund. (Shout out: you folks are awesome, thank you!) Then I sat for maybe ten minutes in the hotel room and cried and felt sorry for myself, then I went out to try to figure out how to salvage two days of a three day trip.

You know what you CAN do in New Orleans even when you can’t really walk much? You can take a Mississippi river tour on the Steamboat Natchez. Highly recommended – fully accessible for any level of mobility impairment, with both ramps and stairs and plenty of open space for wheelchairs as well as seating by railings and against walls. If I had known ahead of time I’d be booking, I might have gone for the brunch cruise. As it was, I got to listen to jazz while meandering down the river and sipping a cajun bloody mary.

Another pro tip for the mobility-impaired who aren’t in wheelchairs: pedicabs! Pedicabs saved me on this trip, for real. They were far less expensive than actual cabs, they let me feel like I was having an additional cool experience in the city instead of ‘missing out’ on being out on the street like any other person, and I used them to get me to clusters of things I wanted to see so I could then lurch along slowly and get my tourist on. If you take a pedicab and like the driver, get their card. You can then call him/her to pick you up if you start out on your own because you think you’re fine but then discover along the way that maybe, not so much. I am not sure about how wheelchair-user-friendly they are, but you might check with individual companies. I went with Bike Taxi Unlimited and had a great experience the whole weekend.

Caveat for for the mobility-impaired who aren’t using wheelchairs: New Orleans pavement is a challenge. I had a serious limp and needed to favor my back, and it was veeeeeery slow going.  I was constantly watching out for ruts and dips in the sidewalks. Still, worth the trip, I would have gone even if I’d known I was having a flare at the outset, but something to bear in mind when planning your itinerary and time. New Orleans is old, scenic, and ‘rustic’ right down to the sidewalks.  Everyone was super nice though – NO ONE snarked at me to get out of their way, sighed loudly because I was holding them up, or dodged abruptly around me. Several people, on the other hand, stopped on the street to ask me if I was ok or if I needed help.  Such a pleasant surprise for someone coming from the DC metro area, where if you stand in the wrong place on the metro escalator people scold you.

Get yer voodoo on!

Thanks to two pedicabs and some careful planning, I got to do my fill of voodoo tourism.  If you are a fan of voodoo or esoterica in general, I recommend the following:

  • The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum.  720 Dumaine Street, New Orleans LA 70116. If I only had time to go to one voodoo location, and I couldn’t do a walking tour of St. Louis Cemetery #1, this would be my pick.  Admission is less than $10, there is no guide so you can linger and take the time you want, there are many voodoo altars to view and some you can leave offerings at if you wish (I would ask first).  Visitors are welcome to take all of the pictures they want. Coolest thing on display: Marie Laveau’s prayer bench.
  • For voodoo-related shopping or souvenirs, go to Voodoo Authentica. The products here are mainly the type that are used by practitioners, so you will want to purchase carefully and ask how to use what you buy. Shop staff are friendly and willing to talk with newbies and tourists no problem, so don’t feel like you aren’t ‘in the know.’  No pictures allowed. Right up the street from the voodoo museum,  612 Dumaine Street, New Orleans LA 70116.
  •  Esoterica Occult Goods, 541 Dumaine, New Orleans LA 70116. Great range of small batch products created by the shop’s owner. Try the various incenses, a tiny pinch goes a long way and you don’t need a charcoal round to burn them.
  • Want a more eclectic range of witchy products?  Go to Hex Old World Witchery, 1219 Decatur Street, New Orleans LA 70116. This shop had a bit more of a commercial-touristy feel to it, but was also exuberant, friendly, and fun. They have spell kits, offer psychic and tarot readings, there are tons of books about New Orleans-related esoterica and witchcraft or magic more generally. The day I was there the salespeople were so friendly and outgoing I wanted to hang out with them, but didn’t say anything because that would be creepy.
  • Next, go to Erzulie’s at 807 Rue Royal, New Orleans LA 70116. There are some funky gifts and souvenirs – tshirts especially recommended – ,but there are also some items and supplies for serious practitioners.  The manager at the time I was there was very professional but also very strict – there is NO picture taking in the store (apparently people steal formulas and ideas – who steals from someone who does voodoo? WTH?, but I digress) and not all items can be purchased by tourists who aren’t practitioners.  Ask before picking anything up.
Mother’s Restaurant: good food, long lines, zero ambiance

When I am moving badly, crowded spaces are more of a concern.  I can’t slip in and out among closely-spaced tables, and if I get bumped hard it can be an issue.  On my second night in New Orleans, after dragging my injured ass all up and down the French Quarter hunting for voodoo, I needed somewhere I could sit back and eat and not worry so much.

We decided to go to Mother’s Restaurant (401 Poydras Street), which bills itself as having the “world’s best baked ham.” There was a major line to get in which didn’t thrill me, as standing was an issue.  I don’t recommend this if you cannot stand unsupported for 15-20 minutes. Also, the entryway seems to be ADA accessible, but I wouldn’t want to have to navigate the line in a chair if I didn’t really really really want ham.

Anyhow.

After what was basically forever and ever, I ordered the seafood gumbo with a side of red beans and rice.  The gumbo was fantastic – take lactaid if you avoid dairy! or skip! – and the beans and rice were some of the best I’ve had, but took a very long time to arrive at the table considering we’d already been in line about forty minutes total.  Skip the bread pudding though.  It looked to contain canned fruit cocktail and was a huge disappointment.

If you have mobility issues ask to be seated in the back dining room. It’s wide open and the tables are spaced far enough apart that working my way around without bumping things or people was a breeze.  That was a big positive, and made me forgive the wait for the food and the ambiance which is more ‘prison lunchroom’ than ‘great dining experience.’  Overall I don’t know if I would go there again, but I got my money’s worth and ate well.

Day 3: Jazz Brunch at the  Court of Two Sisters, art galleries, and Ole’ Saint

My last day in New Orleans was only a half-day, since I still needed to get to the airport and fly home. I decided to go to the Court of Two Sisters (613 Royal Street) for their famous Jazz Brunch. You DO want to call in and get a reservation.  It wasn’t hard for me to get one for that same day but I probably got lucky.  The wait to get in wasn’t terrible (there was a line but once in the building you could theoretically sit along the hall or at the bar for a bit).

This would be a great place to sit for a while and wait for your assigned reservation time slot.
This would be a great place to sit for a while and wait for your assigned reservation time slot.

When you get to the front of the line, you’ll be led to a seat out on the patio.   (Don’t just seat yourself like I did.  I sat in someone’s seat not realizing it .  Embarrassing!)  The patio is gorgeous, plants and trees and hanging fairy lights are restful and lovely.  Order coffee,  then wander back inside to the chef’s stations and cold buffet as many times as you like.

You are going to EAT.  This was my one meal of that day before getting onto the plane, and I was fine.  The brunch isn’t cheap but the variety was perfect, so I could eat my fill and wasn’t stuck with just eggs and fruit.  It would be reasonably easy for someone with non-religious food restrictions to find at least a few dishes to eat.  I don’t recommend coming here if you try to keep kosher or have a shellfish allergy though, as there were shrimp just everywhere – gumbos, big bowls on ice, you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting shellfish.

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So. Much. Food. And you can’t even see the carving station and omelet bar that is to the right of the center display with plates!

After brunch, I set out on Royal Street.  Royal is full of art galleries and antique shops.    I recommend that you a point of stopping by the Red Truck Gallery (938 Royal Street) if you like modern or outsider art! I spent thirty minutes here, and it is a small gallery.  Plus if you decide to purchase something you can pay at the gallery and then have them ship it to your home address. Much better than trying to figure out how to get a new piece of art through airport security and baggage claim safely!

I also popped into Ole’ Saint (132 Royal Street) for a bit. I was full from brunch so didn’t order food.  I *did* have space for beer, as I have a separate beer stomach, so I tried tasters of several of the local offerings. They had a nice selection of craft brews from Louisiana and Mississippi, including some brewed right in New Orleans, along with offerings from further afield. Highly recommended for beer lovers. Ask about getting custom mixes if you are feeling adventurous. The bartender while I was there mixed Abita Andygator and Purple Haze for me, which is called a “Barney.” Not something I’d drink regularly, but fun to try.

What I missed this trip, but have on the list for next time

When I travel I research ahead of time as much as possible, and I always have a list of things I really want to do.  Of course then I never get to do them all.  Here are the places that I wish I’d been able to hit – but that just mean I’ll have to go back to New Orleans (darn):

  • The Upperline Restaurant,  argued to be the best in New Orleans
  • The tomb of Marie Laveau. Sadly, because of vandals, now you have to be on a tour to get into the cemetery where it is located
  • Drink some of the infused vodka out of the vegetable-filled dispenser carafe (onions! olives! sundried tomatoes! green beans! okra!) at the Creole House Restaurant
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I mean GOOD LORD just look at it!
  • Take a cooking class at the New Orleans School of Cooking.  You can watch a demonstration and then try the food, or do a hands-on cooking class.  The dishes vary and you can see what you are signing up for before you reserve a spot.  I love to cook, even to cook things I can’t myself eat, so this is a definite priority for me.

Did I miss anything awesome, New Orleans natives and experts?  Chime in, and I’ll add it to my list for next time!

Tips from a Local: Traverse City, Michigan

TFAL is a feature where local residents provide tips for visitors on what to do, see, eat, and otherwise experience.  Today’s tipster goes by the handle “Modern Alewife.”

(Mod note: I’m going to embed all of these links later so that you just click on the name of the place and can get there – but that isn’t happening today.  Thanks for your patience. And thank you Modern Alewife for doing all of my homework for me!)

If someone was in town just for a day, and wanted three really fun or interesting things to do, what would you suggest to them?

If you’re staying in Traverse City: 1) Go check out the Grand Traverse Commons (http://www.thevillagetc.com) — where the former Traverse City State Hospital (i.e. asylum) has been turned into a gorgeous community with retail shops, condos, and restaurants. No visit is complete without a stop at Left Foot Charley (http://www.leftfootcharley.com) for a glass of wine or cider. 2) Take a brewery tour that gets you outdoors and moving with TC Cycle Pub (http://tccyclepub.com) or Kayak, Bike & Brew (http://kayakbikebrew.com). The beer is good and cold, but being outdoors in northern Michigan is even better. 3) Rent a bike from The River Outfitters (https://theriver.checkfront.com/reserve/) or Paddle TC (http://paddletc.com) and take a ride along the TART Trails (https://traversetrails.org/trail/tart-trail/). Ride along the beautiful Grand Traverse Bay from West End Beach to Clinch Park and then bike through historic neighborhoods to get to the Boardman Lake Trail. The six mile round trip takes you through wooded areas around the edge of an inland lake. When you are back the beginning, you can grab a beer on the patio at the Filling Station Microbrewery (http://thefillingstationmicrobrewery.com) in the historic depot. You’ll have a view of both the lake and the Children’s Garden at the public library.

If you have a car and fancy a short drive (shorter than a day trip): 1) Go up Old Mission Peninsula. There are breathtaking views of East and West Grand Traverse Bay, and loads of pretty orchards and wineries. Stop at the lighthouse at the top of the peninsula and check out the historic exhibits and the rock strewn beach. 2) Check the schedule and see if there is a show at Interlochen Center for the Arts (www.interlochen.org). Between student performances, the Shakespeare Festival, and a summer series of nationally touring artists, there’s always something to see at one of the nation’s premier arts centers. 3) Drive up the Leelanau peninsula and stop at L. Mawby winery for a glass of bubbly. (http://lmawby.com) Specializing in sparkling wines, they grow pinot noir, vignoles, pinot gris, regent, riesling, chardonnay and pinot meaner. If you have time for a longer drive, you can drive to Sutton’s Bay and shop in the colorful downtown, or up to Northport to see another historical lighthouse. You can also head west on the peninsula and explore the docks at Fishtown (http://www.lelandmi.com/fishtown/) in Leland.

What are your favorite non-chain-restaurant places for cheap lunch on the go?

In no particular order: 7 Monks Taproom has been named to Draft Magazine’s list of 100 Best Beer Bars in the country twice. In addition to their 47 rotating craft handles, they have burgers, salads “monk” & cheese, and all sorts of elevated bar food for reasonable prices. (www.7monkstap.com/) The Little Fleet (http://www.thelittlefleet.com) has nine food trucks with budget friendly options, plus a full bar and a great patio. Finally, Harvest (http://roamingharvest.com/harvest/) is a little counter service place in an alley with amazing food. All of the taco options are great, but the ones with blackened local whitefish are a true summer treat, and both the ramen and pho are on point. You should also order the flash fried “street beets” with wasabi mayo or the sweet potato fries with chimichurri sauce. There’s no bar at Harvest, but the food more than stands on its own.

Which touristy things are worth doing in your city/town? Which ones are all hype in your opinion and are safe to skip?

In beautiful weather, you simply can’t beat being outdoors in northern Michigan. For those who can bike or walk, the trails and tours are absolutely worth it. The breweries vary in quality, but are all worth a visit, and the wineries up both the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas are always fun. The casinos are a waste of both time and money. Who wants to be shut up in a smokey building when you could be outside?

Any special suggestions for visitors about clothing or footwear to be worn in your area?

Comfortable shoes! You’re going to want to be able to walk along the Bay or the Boardman River (especially when the salmon are running). Comfortable footwear (like Chacos or Tevas) that go in the water is never a bad idea since it’s always tempting to wade in the Bay or amble out onto the rocks at the lighthouses. Also, bring a sweater! The weather can turn on a dime in northern Michigan, and we get lots of breeze from the water. Layers are always appropriate, even in July.

How is your city/town in terms of accessibility and acceptance?  Would you personally characterize it as easily navigable for a single parent with young children in tow?  For the mobility impaired?  Would you say that it is accepting of racial diversity and of LGBT people?

For the rural midwest, Traverse City is fairly tolerant place. There is a visible and active LGBTQ population. In the summer, it can be crowded, but it tends to be child friendly as it has been a family vacation spot in Michigan for generations. In recent years, the city has made an effort to become more accessible, instituting things like restrictions to the size of sidewalk cafes in order to comfortably accommodate motorized assisted mobility devices.

Where is the best place to buy reasonably priced non-tacky souvenirs?  To buy kitchy tacky souvenirs?

For both, the place to go is the Front Street downtown shopping district in Traverse City. The one way street boasts everything from cheesy t-shirt shops to two bookstores, a spice shop, a shop selling artisanal olive oil, several fudge shops, two shoe stores, and numerous clothing boutiques at a variety of price points. An honorable mention goes to the rapidly expanding Warehouse District (walkable or bikeable from front street for those with no mobility issues).

What is your favorite day trip from city? (Out and return same day.)

Sleeping Bear Dunes (http://www.sleepingbeardunes.com) is about a 45 minute drive and is one of the most stunning places in the country. (Even Good Morning America said so!) Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is a great option for those with mobility issues, while visitors looking for a workout can try the Dune Climb. Make a day of it, pack a cooler, and pick one of the many Lake Michigan beaches for an afternoon in the sun. (Empire Beach, North Bar, Elberta Beach, and Frankfort are favorites for our family. In Frankfort, be sure to check out Stormcloud Brewery which specializes in Belgian styles. http://www.stormcloudbrewing.com)

What are your three favorite places in your city?

1) Grand Traverse Commons (and the patio at Left Foot Charley!) 2) Hannah Park on the banks of the Boardman River 3) The Open Space on the shore of Grand Traverse Bay

Any faux pas to note?  Tips on how not to irk or otherwise offend the locals?

1) Don’t walk into a craft beer bar and order a Michelob Ultra. Read the menu. If you have questions, ask. 2) Park in the lines. Parking is at a premium in downtown, so be respectful of others. 3) In recent years some tourists have attempted to bring badly behaved animals into bars and restaurants under the “service animal” law. Don’t do it. A true assistance animal is well trained, and if you try to fake it, you’re just creating a problem for those with a need for true service animals. 4) Beer and wine are big in Traverse City, but that doesn’t mean everyone is drunk all the time. In fact, the locals would truly appreciate it if you would drink responsibly. 5) PICK UP YOUR TRASH. After festivals, the town can sometimes look like a garbage dump until our teams of volunteers have a chance to tidy up. Be polite and don’t contribute to the problem.

Please feel free to add anything you wish that I may not have thought to ask about but that you want to share.

Getting here can be challenging. We have an airport with commercial flights, but the sheer volume of tourists here in the summer can make those flights pricey. Consider driving up from Grand Rapids (2.5 hours) or even from Detroit (4 hours). You’ll get to see more of the state, including forests, farmland, and classic midwestern small towns.